Nissan's 300ZX is one of the best-loved sports cars of all time. Playing on the success of the earlier Z cars (240Z, 260Z, and 280ZX) this was a rear wheel drive vehicle with IRS (independent rear suspension) and available with or without a turbocharger. Excellent handling and a relatively low sticker price put a very large number of these cars on the street. Like the Datsun 240Z before it, it was a direct competitor to the Chevrolet Corvette. The 300ZX has since been succeeded by the Nissan 350Z and its sibling, the Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe.

The 300ZX is actually two similar but distinct vehicles. The Z31 was produced between 1984 and 1989 and has a somewhat boxy shape. The Z32 was produced from 1990 to 1996 and is substantially sleeker, as well as more powerful. It also has additional suspension refinements which make it handle somewhat better.

Both the Z31 and Z32 came in both a two seater and 2+2 model. In the US, the Z31 and Z32 2+2 are only available in NA form. The Z32 also came in a convertible model, which is always 2+2 and always has an automatic transmission.

Z31

The SOHC VG30E naturally aspirated (NA) model has only 160 horsepower, while the VG30ET turbo model has only 205 hp, running 5 psi of boost. The Z31 300ZX seems a bit underpowered, but by the standards of the time (with increasingly strict emissions regulations) it is fairly beefy. This low-output turbo requires no intercooler and will operate basically forever without maintenance so long as the oil lines are not damaged.

As with other Nissan sports cars sold in the US, however, the primary allure is not power but handling. All Z31s feature double wishbone IRS and a McPherson front suspension. Turbo cars have a limited-slip differential (LSD) which provides additional traction during cornering, especially while accelerating. The weight balance is excellent.

Z32

Known as the "Fairlady Z" in most of the world (though not the USA), the second-generation 300ZX gained a significant performance bump, various improvements to the suspension design, and a far sleeker and more rounded appearance in keeping with other sports cars of its time. Non-turbo Z32s came with the 220hp VG30DE (DOHC) motor, and the TT (twin turbo) models came with the 300hp VG30DETT.

Since the chassis is completely different from the Z31, the suspension setup is also changed. The biggest and perhaps most beneficial difference is the addition of inequal-length double wishbones in the rear. The idea of a double-wishbone suspension is that the camber of the wheels does not change (compared to one another) during body roll. This is an almost ideal system, but for one thing; As the body rolls (which is to be avoided if possible) the camber of the wheels to the road does change. An inequal-length double wishbone setup adds negative camber to the loaded wheel in order to increase traction. This setup is reputed to dramatically improve lane-changing ability as well as cornering. The front end of the Z32 also got an upgrade from a MacPherson Strut Suspension to double wishbone.

The down side of a sports car of this class is the weight; The NA Z32 weighs in at 3265 lb (1480 kg.) Compare this to the Nissan 240SX, which weighs 2750 lb (1247 kg) or the Acura Integra, which comes in around 2500 lb (1133 kg.) This added weight makes the car much less spry in the corners, but adds stability at high speeds. When compared to its contemporaries however, such as the Mitsubishi 3000GT (3351 lb/1519 kg) it is even a little lighter.

Another advantage of the Z32 is that it was offered in a convertible model, which unfortunately only came in a non-turbo automatic version.

Engines

The engines used in the Z31 and Z32 are the VG30E and VG30DE, respectively. The VG30E is SOHC (Single-cam) while the VG30DE is DOHC (twin-cam). Both engines use a timing belt rather than a chain for reduced noise and friction. The VG30DE also has numerous other refinements, not the least of which is coil-on-plug ignition (COP). All turbo Z32s are TT or twin turbo as well.

The VG30E was also used in the USDM 200SX, various pickups, the Pathfinder SUV, Quest minivan, and the Maxima, though never with a turbo.

Z31 VIN Decoding

VIN Number Arrangement: JN1 C Z 1 4 S * G X 000101 

JN1- Nissan Pass Vehicle 
C- Engine Type: C=VG30ET(turbo) H=VG30E(non turbo) 
Z- Nissan 300ZX 
1- Model Change:(0-9) 
4- Body Type: 2=seater 6=2+2seater 
S- Restraint System: S=standard 
*- Check Digit: (0-9 or X) 
G- Model year: E=1984 F=1985 G=1986 H=1987 J=1988 K=1989 
X- Manufacture Plant: Hiratsuka, Japan 
000101- Vehicle Serial Number

Predecessors, Successors, and Competitors

The Z31 300ZX and its immediate replacement, the Z32 "Fairlady Z" together represent one of the most-known models of sports car around. The 300ZX is known for its hearty torque, good handling, and general tunability. In order to understand its function, however, you have to compare it to other sports cars of the era.

The Nissan Z legacy goes back to 1971 which saw the introduction of the Datsun 240Z, a 2.4 liter overhead cam powered sports car with semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension which quickly outsold the then-king Chevrolet Corvette and truly revolutionized the way sports cars were regarded worldwide. It was followed by the 260Z and 280Z(X), which were essentially the same car with different engines installed. The styling changed very slightly over the years, but the lines remained the same all the way up to 1980 when they stopped making the 280ZX. Every car company needs a sports car to prop up their line, and Nissan chose to move from the straight six of the 280 to a V6, and increase the displacement somewhat - Hence the 1984 300ZX.

While the '84 Z may not sound that impressive with only 205bhp in the turbocharged model, it's important to compare it to the other vehicles in its class available in '84. The Toyota Supra was still a Celica, and available with an inline six cylinder engine, but only up to 160bhp. The Porsche 944 of the time featured only 143 bhp, and the Dodge Daytona Turbo had one less at 142 bhp. Honda's Prelude (at the time, basically a sportier civic) had only 100 bhp. In addition, its MacPherson front suspension and double wishbone rear made it neatly outhandle essentially every competitor except perhaps the Pontiac Fiero - with only 92 bhp (though it has room for a 350ci chevy motor.) It's also worth mentioning the '84 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE developed only 135bhp, making it about the second closest competitor to the turbo Z.

What all this boils down to (and what I'm eventually approaching) is that the Z's only real competition was the Chevrolet Corvette, which also featured relatively advanced suspension design. Its 350ci overhead valve, pushrod V8 put out only 205hp; The same amount of power as a turbo 300ZX, which was about 300 pounds lighter and came only with a four speed automatic or four speed manual transmission to the Z's five speed.

Fast forward to 1990, and the introduction of the Fairlady Z. With its 3 liter DOHC V6 and twin turbos, this vehicle put out a very respectable 300hp, a full 95 horsepower more than the single-cam, single-turbo engine found in the Z31. This time, the Corvette had a certain advantage; The 1990 Corvette ZR-1 was built up to 375hp. The $33,000 fully loaded Z32 with its 300hp does however compare quite favorably to the $59,000 ZR-1 when you consider the price; It is relatively trivial to enhance a Z32 to the 400rwhp mark. The base model 'vette was also about $33,000 MSRP, but had only 250bhp, and nowhere near the Z32's supension. Clearly, the 300ZX was again the performance monster.

Since then, we have seen stock vehicles with 2.0 liter turbos be sold with upwards of 270 horsepower, and all wheel drive is becoming quite popular. The Nissan 240SX is generally held to outhandle both the Z31 and Z32, but it was sold with the engine Nissan used in trucks and minivans in order to stop it from competing with the 300ZX. When equipped with a JDM engine, it is generally considered to defeat the Z32 in every category except perhaps for appearance. The Mitsubishi GTO came to the US as the 3000GT, but it came only in AWD twin turbo or RWD naturally aspirated versions, leaving a great price gap in between. The R/T Turbo model was $45,000, and the VR4 version (which was not only AWD but also came with a speed-sensitive front air dam) cost still more than that, and has only 20hp more than the 300ZX. The Supra with its turbocharged 1JZ-GTE 2.5 liter straight six has only 20hp less, putting it in the same ballpark as well, though sales were softer than those of the 300ZX TT.

The ultimate successor of the 300ZX is the 350Z. Originally offered with a 276 horsepower 3.5 liter naturally aspirated V6, that engine has since been upgraded (for the 2005 model year) to 298 horsepower. This is the same output that the VG30DET had when turbocharged.


References:

  1. Webpage: Z31.com FAQ. Z31.com.(http://z31.com/nfaq/faqview.php?ParentID=3#11)

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